Flashback: Figured Glassware and Where It Came From

April 2nd, 2009

This article focuses on the history of glassware, especially pressed and flint glass, noting the first major manufacturers that produced the glass and where they were located. It originally appeared in the July 1944 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

Many times I have seen people ask, with a smirk and a quizzical look in their eye, “Where does all the old glass come from? Certainly you cannot claim all the pieces seen in all the antique shops are genuine.” Those who put this question in the manner they do, are almost without fail amateurs who have never collected anything themselves. Of course there are fakes in every line of “collectioning,” but those who are serious and study, soon detect the spurious.

Now Known as Amberina Inverted Thumbprint: This page from an old catalogue issued by Hobbs, Brockunier & Co., of Wheeling, West Virginia, shows this pattern in a Polka Dot made in "ruby amber ware." Since the then-called "Polka Dot" is known to have been made by a number of glass factories, there must have been some loop hole in the original patent for this design which was taken out by McKee Brothers or deliberate design piracy by their competitors.

Now Known as Amberina Inverted Thumbprint: This page from an old catalogue issued by Hobbs, Brockunier & Co., of Wheeling, West Virginia, shows this pattern in a Polka Dot made in "ruby amber ware." Since the then-called "Polka Dot" is known to have been made by a number of glass factories, there must have been some loop hole in the original patent for this design which was taken out by McKee Brothers or deliberate design piracy by their competitors.

While searching through my notes in preparing my forthcoming book, Victorian Glass, I came across an article which will prove amusing to seasoned collectors and at the same time answer the question as to where much of the old glass came from. Its content would indicate that it was written sometime after 1892. I do not know who gave it to me so, much to my regret, proper credit cannot be given. The author must have been an old-time glassworker. Apparently he became incensed over a somewhat minor error written by an amateur.

One must read his article on figured glassware with an open mind. It was written in the spirit of the times. There are a few errors, but there is a great deal of value concerning locations and outputs of many glass factories in the Pittsburgh area. It is also of much interest that he speaks of “figured press glass,” rather the pattern glass. His title, “Figured Glassware” is good. In speaking of the M’kee Bros and their “R.L.” pattern, an illustration here pictures a page from a M’Kee catalogue of the 1850’s and it may be seen that “R.L.” means “Ribbed Leaf,” which is now known widely by the name of Bellflower. Apparently he knows little of the New England factories, because there are records of Ashburton being made locally in the 1840’s and it was still being sold into the 1880’s, which is a longer period of time than he can claim for “the Diamond” (now known as Sawtooth), though Sawtooth was first made in flint glass and later continued in the cheaper lime glass.

And so the story goes:

“With that careless saunter and that total indifference to, and obliviousness of glass history for which he has earned a deserved reputation, our good friend ‘Mack’ of the Commoner comes once again to the front with the following bunch of timothy-seed and clover blossoms dangling from his antlers:

“‘H. S. McKee, who lately retired from the glass business, secured a patent July 30, 1878, for what he termed “Molds for decorating ware.” It was simply a mold with polka dot figures cut in it. This probably was among the earliest figuring cut upon iron molds to be reproduced in glass.’

“Now that is what we consider an unforgivable sin, even for a loot-finisher.

An Old George Duncan and Sons Catalogue: This illustrated cover lithographed by Armor, Fernhalse & Co., Pittsburgh, shows an early view of the Duncan and Sons factory which was devoted almost entirely to making figured press glass table wares.

An Old George Duncan and Sons Catalogue: This illustrated cover lithographed by Armor, Fernhalse & Co., Pittsburgh, shows an early view of the Duncan and Sons factory which was devoted almost entirely to making figured press glass table wares.

“The first pressed piece of modern glassware was a tumbler made by Deming Jarvis in Sandwich, Mass., in 1827, afterwards passed into the possession of John A. Dobson, the extensive Baltimore, Md., glass jobber, and was exhibited by Hobbs, Brockunier & Co. at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.

“According to Apsley Pellatt’s Curiosities of Glass-making, published in England in 1849, metal plungers (and it is reasonable to assume, metal molds, also), were then extensively used in the United States, from where the art of glass pressing had been introduced into England.

“The first flint glass works in the United States was built in 1807 by George Robinson, a carpenter, and Edward Ensell, an English glassmaker, under the name of Robinson & Ensell. Owing to disagreements the factory was bought in the following year, 1808, by Messrs. Bakewell & Page, who afterwards became Bakewell, Pears & Co. Their product in the main consisted of blown and cut glassware, and the prices they obtained may be guessed at from an entry in the journal of Mr. Ferron, who visited Pittsburg in 1817, left his order with the firm, and made the following record: ‘A pair of decanters, cut from a London pattern, price 8 guineas’ ($40).

“The site of that historically important flint factory was at the foot of Ross Street, on the bank of the Monongahela. The first furnace contained 6 twenty inch pots. In 1810 a 10-pot furnace replaced the original furnace, and in 1814 a second 10-pot furnace was added. The works were destroyed in the great fire of 1845, and the site was afterwards partly occupied by the depot of the B & O R.R. whose tracks and freight yards still cover the site Bakewell, Pears & Co. afterwards rebuilt near the corner of 9th and Bingham Streets South Side, opposite the present Ripley plant of the United States Glass Co., where they carried on business until their final retirement in 1882, after a business existence of 74 eventful years.

“In 1829 the Union Flint Glass Works were established by Hay & McCully; in 1813 the firm became Hay & Hanna; in 1838, Park & Hanna; in 1848, Hanna & Wallace, and in 1849, Wallace, Lyon & Co. To James P. Wallace, of the latter firm, who proved himself most energetic and ambitious to improve the quality of flint glass and perfect molds, is largely due the enviable reputation that Pittsburgh pressed tableware enjoyed from 1850 to the present time.

An Old M'Kee & Brothers Catalogue: The two pitchers at the upper left are designed as R. L., "Ribbed Leaf." This pattern is now known as "Bellflower."

An Old M'Kee & Brothers Catalogue: The two pitchers at the upper left are designed as R. L., "Ribbed Leaf." This pattern is now known as "Bellflower."

“In 1852 the firm name was changed to James B. Lyon & Co. and in 1875 the name was again changed to that of the O’Hara Glass Co., the officers of which were James B. Lyon, Chairman; John B. Lyon, treasurer; and Joseph Anderson, of the United States Glass Co., superintendent.

“The fact that figured pressed ware has been continuously made since 1850 is so easily established by the citation of indisputable authorities, that we propose to marshal a few.

“In 1850 Bryce, McKee & Co. built the works at 21st and Wharton Streets, South Side, which in 1852 became the property of Bryce, Richards & Co., in 1866, Bryce, Walker & Co., and from 1882 until absorbed by the United States Glass Co. (July 1, 1892) was operated by Bryce Brothers. They not only made figured pressed ware from the start but their famous diamond pattern, which is still made and sold, has enjoyed the longest continuous run of any pressed figured pattern in the world.

“In 1851 the firm of Adams, Macklin & Co. started their first glass factory at the corner of Ross and Second Streets, where the late John Adams succeeded in making the first lime glass, which became a substitute for the costlier, heavy lead glass formerly used, and it may truthfully be said that to the introduction and perfection of the glass press and the use of cheap lime flint, the modern tableware industry of the United States owes more than to any other single factors which have contributed to its expansion and present importance.

“The above firm made pressed figured tumblers and tableware from the start, and in 1860 became Adams & Co., the works being located on South Tenth and Washington, now Sarah Street.

“In 1853 F & J McKee established the flint glass works at the foot of 18th Street, South Side, which afterwards became McKee Brothers, and where, to the writer’s personal knowledge, such figured ware as R. L. tumblers, wines, eggs and nappies were pressed, besides ‘Star Bottom’ tumblers, New York goblets, and pillared and fluted ware in car load lots. That was long before July 30th, 1878; before the war, before ‘Mack’ was born, perhaps or certainly before he worked in the factory ‘or wrote nonsense for alleged glass journals.

The Eugenie Pattern of the 1850's: The page also from an old M'Kee & Brothers catalogue shows the variety of pieces that they made in this pattern. Note the dolphin finial on the covered sugar bowl at the lower right.

The Eugenie Pattern of the 1850's: The page also from an old M'Kee & Brothers catalogue shows the variety of pieces that they made in this pattern. Note the dolphin finial on the covered sugar bowl at the lower right.

“There are many of the glassworkers still alive who gathered and pressed in that old factory, from which so many of the successful glassmakers of a later period graduated. From that old McKee factory sprang such men as William B. Schraff, the oarsman, and his brother Phillip, who became stockholders in and proprietors of the Co-operative Flint Glass Co. Beaver Falls, Pa., which was a blooming success from the first jump and is still one of the most profitable independent flint glass factories in the United States.

“In 1866 the firm of Richards & Hartley Flint Glass Co. built their works at Marion and Pride Streets while the firm of Ripley & Co. established itself on South Tenth Street in the same year, and in 1875 D. C. Ripley and associates built their works at 9th and Bingham, George Duncan & Sons continuing to operate the Tenth Street factory on pressed tableware. Doyle & Co. built their works at 10th and Washington Streets in 1868, while the works on 18th Street, South Side, built in 1859 by Johnson, King & Co., which in 1883 became King, Son & Co., and in 1887 the King Glass Co. of which W. C. King, now with the United States was president, was originally started as a pressed tableware factory.

“Indeed, the firms of George Duncan & Sons, (1875) Ripley & Co., Doyle & Co., Adams & Co. and the King Glass Co., were all of them almost exclusively engaged in making figured pressed glass and tableware from their inception, some of them fully 29 years prior to 1878, the date assigned by ‘Mack’ for the appearance of the polka dot pattern, alleged to have been probably among the earliest figuring cut upon iron molds to be reproduced in glass.

Cover of an Adams & Co. Catalogue: This was one of the well-known firms of glass manufacturers in Pittsburgh.

Cover of an Adams & Co. Catalogue: This was one of the well-known firms of glass manufacturers in Pittsburgh.

“The firm of Sheppard & Co., whose works occupied the site now covered by the South Side hospital, corner 20th and Mary Streets, was built in 1863, and in 1865 became Campbell, Jones & Co., and at a later date, Jones, Cavitt & Co., made pressed figured tableware exclusively from the very start.

“But there is one other sovereign fact which should not be omitted in this connection as proving not only that figured pressed molds were in general use long prior to 1878, but that the industry had long before that date reached a point where the pressing of all kinds of glass was specialized. The Rochester Tumbler Company was organized in 1872, and rose rapidly to a specialty works, covering the entire field of pressed plain and figured tumblers, sending its product into every city throughout the United States, and becoming one of the first American factories to reach out for and hold a profitable export trade.

“In 1856 Pittsburg contained 33 factories, 14 of them being window glass houses, 8 were engaged in making flint glass tableware, 8 were making vials and drug ware and 2 were making black bottles. The flint glass factories made during that year 6,340 tons of flint glassware, valued at $1,147,540, and it is only a reasonable supposition that at least one or two pressed figured dishes were bundled up among that gorge of glassware. In 1865 there were 18 tableware factories in Pittsburg, producing 4,200 tons of pressed tableware, valued at $2,000,000 and we are willing and ready to be qualified to the  fact that most of it was figured pressed ware, because we made some of it ourselves.

George Duncan & Sons Plant in 1884: This dated catalogue cover shows how large this firm's factory was at this date. Note the two pieces of glassware illustrated at the upper left and right corners.

George Duncan & Sons Plant in 1884: This dated catalogue cover shows how large this firm's factory was at this date. Note the two pieces of glassware illustrated at the upper left and right corners.

“During the Centennial year, 1876, Pittsburgh operated 25 tableware factories, with 268 pots, producing 15,00o tons of glassware valued at $2,225,000.

“But enough we think has been shown to prove to any unprejudiced mind that, as usual, our friend of the Commoner does not know what he is talking about. If ‘Mack’ dares to provoke us a little further with his glass nonsense, we will undertake to prove that pressed figured glassware was made in American factories many years before his father dug turf in the bog of Allen, or fed the pigs at Kibereen.”

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

4 comments so far

  1. Brenda Vincent Says:

    I have aquired a 6″ glasssware pitcher in clear glass, good luck pattern. Could you please direct me to collectors information about this type of glassware so that it can be identified.
    Thank You

  2. Brenda Vincent Says:

    I have acquired a lovely cut glass vessel. It has two ears, similar to a loving cup, but is only 4 inches in height and 4 inches in diameter. I has an intricate thistle pattern. Could you please direct me to a web site, or a source of information on this type of cut glassware?
    Thankk you
    Brenda Vincent

  3. Nancy Mihalek Says:

    My grandfather, Charles Snair, was a glassblower at the Co-Operative flint glass company. The company worked from the 1880 to 1934. I am looking to purchase any Co-op glass.

  4. Karen Phelps Says:

    My grandfather was a glassblower for Bryce. I have some gorgeous pieces along with some of their “polka dot” pieces. And to think as kids we were always dropping them. The polka dot juice glasses were our everyday glasses.


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